5 July 2014 19:56
Gonzalo Higuain scored his first goal of the FIFA World Cup as Argentina beat Belgium 1-0 at Estadio Nacional to reach the semi-finals.
Much has been made of Argentina’s reliance on mercurial captain Lionel Messi during the tournament in Brazil, but Alejandro Sabella’s side proved they are no one-man team with an impressive display in Brasilia on Saturday.
Messi once again led by example as he equalled Diego Maradona’s tally of 91 caps for his country, but it was Higuain who proved to be Argentina’s match-winner with a fine early strike.
The Real Madrid striker also hit the crossbar in the second half as the South American nation produced arguably their best performance of the competition to secure a last-four spot against either the Netherlands or Costa Rica.
Argentina beat Belgium in the semi-finals in 1986 in the last meeting between the two sides, then went on to be crowned world champions, and on this evidence they are capable of repeating that feat for the first time since those finals in Mexico.
Belgium had been billed as dark horses to go all the way, but they were not at the races in the capital as they bowed out with a whimper.
Jose Basanta replaced suspended full-back Marcos Rojo in the Argentina starting line-up, while Martin Demichelis and Lucas Biglia also came in.
Belgium coach Marc Wilmots handed a start to Kevin Mirallas at the expense of winger Dries Mertens.
Argentina came in for criticism following their disjointed display against Switzerland in the last 16, but started on the front foot and were rewarded when Higuain put them in front with a fine finish just eight minutes in.
Not surprisingly Messi was involved, carrying the ball forward from the middle of the park after Vincent Kompany had lost possession then picking out Angel di Maria, whose pass deflected invitingly for Higuain to swivel before firing into the far corner of the net with a clinical right-footed strike.
Di Maria was thwarted by a Kompany block after Messi had picked him out with a sublime pass and the Real Madrid winger injured himself in the process, so was replaced by Enzo Perez.
Messi was at the heart of everything and blasted a free-kick just over the crossbar after being upended on the edge of the penalty area after 39 minutes.
Argentina were brimming with confidence, but they were almost caught out four minutes before the break, when Mirallas’ powerful header was off target after he was picked out by an inviting Jan Vertonghen cross.
Higuain was a real handful for the Belgium defence and almost doubled Argentina’s lead with a stunning solo goal nine minutes into the second half.
The striker embarked on an incisive run, in which he skipped past Kompany all too easily before unleashing a venomous right-footed shot that struck the top of the crossbar.
Marouane Fellaini should have tested Sergio Romero, but headed off target after Vertonghen whipped in another dangerous cross.
Belgium threw men forward in an attempt to force extra time and saw a late deflected Kevin De Bruyne shot flash just wide.
Messi then spurned a chance to finish Belgium off three minutes into time added on when he raced clear, but Thibaut Courtois stood tall to thwart him.
And Belgium should have made Messi pay when Romelu Lukaku and Axel Witsel came close to producing a dramatic equaliser, but Argentina held on to progress.